In the pages of ancient mystics there are notions of the “illusory” or hollow nature of existence. There is a metaphysical and moral interpretation of this, each worthy of description and analysis.
The metaphysical form of this is seen most clearly in the writings of Descartes and in pop-culture Sci-fi films such as The Matrix. What if the world we know of is not the “real” world? And though this is a profound thought initially, it in the minds of many goes no further in spawning thought for three distinct reasons. One is the practical and self-absorbed nature of the human race. Another is the non-intellectual nature of most people. And the last is the superfluous and eliminative nature of the argument. Which, although theoretically true, does not create any new knowledge but destroys not only all existing knowledge but even the possibility of it (unless other non-empirical forms of knowledge are accepted).
Though the first two have to do with human nature rather than the nature of the argument, the last can be seen as a form of criticism of the argument itself. If all descriptions of trees and burning supernovas are not proven to be true (what they describe is not knowledge, unless we take the pragmatist account of it) then the most learned of men is on equal footing with the ignoramus who knows nothing. If anything, the learned man is in a worse position for he “knows” more things which he cannot verify than the man who knows nothing and makes no claim of knowledge.
This I believe is a primary reason why this talk of the world being illusory is so unsatisfactory. Regardless of its truth it kills conversations and all further descriptive accounts of respective fields of knowledge (e.g. biology, medicine, engineering, etc.). Another is that in essence a purely metaphysical account of the world is always of less significance to Man than a normative or moral one. This is partially because of the practical and egotistical nature of humanity; but also due-to an implicit recognition of the normative superseding or taking precedence over the descriptive in any account of things. For what “is” is of no significance if we have no idea or knowledge of what “ought” to be.
This is why the second meaning of this life being “illusory” feels so much more powerful and evokes more passion in Man than the descriptive or Cartesian account of it. The account of this illusion given in Schopenhauer and some interpretations of Buddhism, that our lives are illusory because they are based on striving and desires for things we crave for but will not provide the lasting happiness we dream of, are so powerful in their affect even on a mediocre mind because it is a truth that rings deep in a world of lies, philosophic sophistry and religious mumbo-jumbo. We long for something, but what we crave is not in actuality that thing but the happiness we foolishly believe it can sustain for us.
All of our lives are spent mostly anywhere but in the present moment. Either contemplating some past event or imagining the future. Either in fantasy or in preparation. This recognition and description is one reason why Arthur Schopenhauer is worthy of the title of one of the most brilliant thinkers ever to grace the sorry face of mankind. His depiction of our lives and the reality of our existence is as vivid and powerful as one could ever find.
The degree to which this is true and the degree to which this is significant in a description of our lives is so equally strong that it makes us wonder why a benevolent creator would bother in creating us – nay, it seems an impossibility. For if we were created by a morally good God (rather than one who is apathetic or malevolent) then asides from His first error (creating anything at all) it seems His major mistake in creation was creating a race of beings that are fundamentally not satisfied with their lives. This is seen in many writings but particularly in the writings of that great pessimist (cite Schopenhauer).
This truth of our nature is a reason why Stoicism is so unsatisfactory to so many people. For its main tenant is, “embrace life as it is rather than believe in hope and wishes.” It is the fundamental nature of our race to wish and dream for what either cannot be or what currently is not because it is not. That is, even if we get the things we desire, the things we hoped and wished for so fervently, the effect is not the lasting happiness we thought but a momentary period of dull satisfaction only to be met with more desires for more of the same thing or new things which we elude ourselves into believing will make us happy.
One of the most defining qualities in a person is whether they prefer a happy lie or the truth no matter how somber and unpleasant. To the extent that a man can stomach an unpleasant truth is the extent which his constitution is moldable for Stoicism; or as Schopenhauer notes from Aristotle as one of the wisest truths of all philosophy: strive for a lack of pain and contentment rather than pleasure and happiness in this life. For though the most cheerful man in the world is only happy periodically, unhappiness created by attachment to this world and the ill-logic of believing in lasting happiness through external things (material or social) is what abounds everywhere, making fools of even the most intellectual of men and what makes our lot so sorry and worthy of pity and sympathy.
It is this recognition of the illusory and unfortunate nature of our lives which ground feelings of general love and compassion. For though the average man can feel love for his friends and family, he has nothing in his experience of humanity as a whole and therefore can only relate to them through the very broad medium of suffering which every single person on earth can relate to and has experience of.
The illusory nature of things can also be observed in the phenomena of romance. Romantic love is not “true love” in the strictest sense of the word and instead a form of Egoism and wish-fulfillment. Let us briefly compare it to the most legitimate forms of love and concern that exist. A parent’s love of their child is based on legitimate moral concern for the well-being and happiness of their off spring. There are many instances in their lives where their child’s happiness and well-being is of greater importance to them than their own – it is this very real sentiment which is the best example we have of the general goodness of the human race and defeats the arguments of Psychological Egoism despite humanity being largely egotistical as a whole. Aristotle defines true friendship as having moral concern for the well-being of the friend rather than merely using him as a means to pass the time or for mutual utility (which could be seen more as the nature of an acquaintance than a true friend).
In comparison with the love of friends and family, romantic love immediately seems shallow and superficial in comparison. Romantic love is self-absorbed and is a form of selfish craving rather than legitimate concern for another’s welfare. Those who truly love their romantic partner love them in the same way as two people who are fierce friends love each other and therefore when romantic love is genuine love it is not a distinct form but rather mimics friendship.
The realization that romance is a shallow illusion is merely one form of realizing the significance of “moral illusions” or psychological deceptions as opposed to metaphysical falsehoods. While the latter is a passing note of intrigue for intellectuals, it is the illusory nature of our existence which should be of the utmost attention to the masses, for it is this realization that is of the utmost significance to their lives and is their salvation from needless self-inflicted pain to the extent that such freedom is possible.